Vocabulary is the greatest predictor of success in literacy. Because a range of words can be used to communicate similar concepts, strong vocabulary will allow students to choose the most appropriate word in their own texts. Students need to develop their writing vocabulary to make more precise word choices.

Vocabulary: have I chosen the best word for that?

Strategy - Explicit teaching

To further develop their writing vocabulary, students need to have continual opportunities to learn and rehearse a wider range of vocabulary in meaningful contexts.

Consider the vocabulary demands of units of learning and plan explicit learning opportunities in all learning areas around key content vocabulary. Students need to be able to accurately and effectively draw on new vocabulary in their writing to confidently explore and record their ideas.

Explicitly build vocabulary by exploring the following in a range of contexts:

  • synonyms
  • homonyms
  • word definitions (using prior knowledge, context or word origins)
  • dictionary use (to find the meaning of unfamiliar words)
  • thesaurus use (to find synonyms)
  • word families and base words
  • word play
  • content vocabulary banks
  • building, identifying and using environmental print – including print within books (to find a technical or precise word).

General strategies

Provide opportunities to experiment with vocabulary and wordplay. Draw students’ attention to words in context and expose students to a range of vocabulary. For example, Roald Dahl’s and Dr Seuss’ texts often have interesting and inventive vocabulary to capture a precise idea or create atmosphere.

Model strategies for conscious vocabulary choices to suit the type of text in all learning areas and categorise the vocabulary, for example, In our play dough recipe we need a word to describe how the mixture looks and feels, if we say ‘yucky’ then our audience may not want to make it. What would be a better word for our recipe?

Prompt students to think about the meaning of less familiar words and use background knowledge to interpret new terms as well as using the context of a word, such as visuals or the sentence, or text, it appears in, for example, This character is a vegetarian; the beginning of vegetarian is similar to vegetables, so what could vegetarian mean?

Provide many opportunities to learn, rehearse and use relevant and precise vocabulary and ask students to rephrase their responses if they could choose more specific vocabulary.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: word chains

This vocabulary word association game can be played as a lesson break or writing warm-up to support students familiarity with vocabulary associated with a relevant topic, theme or idea from any learning area.

  • Seat students in a circle and state the focus topic, theme or idea (differentiate the challenge by choosing more or less familiar subject matter).
  • Go around the circle as each student contributes an original word associated with the focus subject matter:


  • Conclude with a short reflection on the range of vocabulary that came up,

Variation Students record a sentence about the subject matter using at least three words from the word chain; return to the circle to share range of sentences.

Extension: Each student must try to remember the previous responses in order and add their own as the word chain travels around the circle.

Activity 2: forbidden words

This vocabulary exercise can be done as a whole class, in small groups or as a literacy centre activity. It is based around communicating an idea clearly despite restrictions on associated words. By restricting word use it increases the vocabulary demands and encourages careful word choices.

  • One student is the communicator for their audience.
  • Provide them with a mini whiteboard or clipboard (so it is hidden from the audience) with the word or idea they must communicate and a short list of forbidden words.

Example: read (do not say; book, words, library, story.

  • The communicator must attempt to communicate the word or idea to their audience without using any of the words in front of them.
  • Students in the audience raise their hands to guess the idea.
  • Once the communicator succeeds or says a forbidden word a different student becomes the communicator.

Variation: Play Class vs Teacher for team-building, each time the communicator succeeds the class scores a point and otherwise the teacher scores a point.

Variation: Prepare ideas and lists in advance for literacy centre or write the idea and forbidden words on the board for students to complete individually as a written exercise.

Extension: Students take turns with the task of selecting the idea and the forbidden words; they will need to consider common word associations to make it tricky for their peers.


Australian curriculum

ACELY1661: Creating texts: Create short imaginative and informative texts that show emerging use of appropriate text structure, sentence-level grammar, word choice, spelling, punctuation and appropriate multimodal elements, for example illustrations and diagrams.

NSW syllabus

EN1-9B: Outcome 9: uses basic grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary appropriate to the type of text when responding to and composing texts

EN1-9B: Develop and apply contextual knowledge: begin to understand that choice of vocabulary adds to the effectiveness of text.

Return to top of page Back to top